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Books and Breakfast: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

For our 2021 conference, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted our graphic selections: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona. Today, we’re showcasing our three adult selections: A Feast of Sorrows, Queen of the Conquered, and The Mere Wife. Next month, we’ll finish up with our young adult selections. We hope these features will help you make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens next year.

 
2021 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows

While calling Angela Slatter the heir apparent to Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue may seem a bold assertion, it’s appropriately so. Carter and Donoghue twisted fairy tales, reclaimed them, told violently feminist or joyously queer versions of them. But despite their obvious feminism, Carter’s and Donoghue’s tales often remain in conversation with their more traditional, more heteropatriarchal versions. Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” reclaims Bluebeard, conjuring a mother as savior rather than the violent, patriarchal heroism of the original. Donoghue’s Cinderella in “The Tale of the Shoe” still seeks her coupled-up happily ever after, but with the fairy godmother rather than the prince. Both of their work is an undeniable fuck-you to the heteropatriarchy, but their defiance must remain conversant with that same heteropatriarchy.

By contrast, Slatter—like her heroines—often eschews that conversation entirely. She has little interest in correcting, instructing, or even raging at the heteropatriarchy. She has little interest in explaining to the heteropatriarchy why Bluebeard cannot kill this wife or why Cinderella would obviously be so much happier with her godmother. She—like her heroines—is busy. Busy being, if you will: being frightened and fearless, being brave and bold, being frail and fantastical. Being relentlessly awesome. Being, quite often, villainous.

A Feast of Sorrows, one of World Fantasy Award- and British Fantasy Award-winning Slatter’s collections of short fiction, features twelve of her finest, darkest fairy tales. Her women and girls take paths less travelled, offer and accept poisoned apples, and embrace all sorts of transformation. You won’t find just princesses and ghosts and killers here, but a full gamut of artisans as well: bakers, quilters, crafters, spinners, and coffin-makers. Never have the feminine arts been so magical or so deadly. This collection is one to be savored one story, one revelation, and one smart, determined, independent woman at a time.


Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Queen of the Conquered

On the island of Hans Lollik, in a fantasy Caribbean, Sigourney has risen from the ashes. Her family was murdered by colonizers years earlier for daring to ascend from slavery to nobility—but Sigourney survived and, through sheer determination and gutsy smarts, has again achieved the rank of nobility. And in this work of impressive intrigue, Sigourney’s identity is secret, her magic dangerous, and her heart focused on revenge. The childless king has declared that he will select his successor from among the nobility and ambitious, vengeful Sigourney wants that title, is willing to kill for that title, in order to help her people. But someone is murdering nobles, the king isn’t quite what he seems, and Sigourney is a ready suspect. Not only is her years-long plan on the line, her life might be as well.

Queen of the Conquered is smart. Really smart. Callender simultaneously constructs both a complicated murder mystery and a searing indictment of slavery and colonialism. Their cast of characters is complex, full of individual and treacherous magics, all certainly capable of planning and executing a series of murders. But the more impressive, important achievement is weaving this mystery into a fully realized world of colonization, slavery, and potential change. Callender’s bedrock is power disparities and they use those skillfully as a foundation for their complex world of choices and compulsion, dominance and pain, compromises and uprisings. Only rarely—in the work of N.K. Jemisin, perhaps, or Justina Ireland—have you read a fantasy work like this.

And yet, with all of that, Callender’s tour de force is Sigourney Rose, born into the nobility despite her dark skin, improbable survivor of the massacre of her family, an impossibly complex, ambitious woman playing an impossibly long game. Sigourney is a victim, but also—perhaps—a villain. Her status grants her slave ownership—slaves she could free, but does not. She punishes her slaves, and has sex with some, knowing that they cannot refuse her. She seeks power purportedly for the good of her people, but while she lives in luxury, her people continue to suffer, often at her hand. She’s playing the long game, where great risk could bring great reward, but what about the sacrifices she demands of her powerless people in the meantime? Victimhood and villainy, it seems, are not mutually exclusive.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife

Herot Hall, the suburban setting of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf retelling, is a Stepford-pretty utopia: Everything is picket fences and carefully arranged flowers, big houses and perfect families. And for Willa, married to Herot heir Roger, life is perfect, her carefully curated self raising her carefully curated son, Dylan, in her carefully curated house. Her schedule is a beautiful round of dinner parties and playdates, glamorous clothes and perfect meals. But Willa lives on the edge of Herot Hall, where all this careful curation is guarded from the outside by walls and surveillance cameras. These defenses make Willa feel safe, but they aren’t enough to keep out Gren.

Gren belongs to Dana, a soldier who didn’t want Gren and doesn’t really understand how she gave birth to Gren, but when she returned from war, she had Gren. Now they struggle to survive in a cave outside the reaches of Herot Hall. The lasting effects of war seem like an impossible mountain to climb in returning to society, so Dana remains—with her son—on the periphery, each day a new challenge in their solitary existence. But Gren is growing, and exploring, and doesn’t always share his mother’s damage—or her fear.

In this contemporary exploration of monstrousness and society, Dylan and Gren are the catalysts, but not the monsters. Both Willa and Dana live in careful worlds, where, like anyone, their pasts, their fears, and their hopes underlie their expectations and their choices. Both Willa and Dana try, with little success, to impress the importance of these careful worlds onto their sons. As Gren grows, his curiosity drives him into Herot Hall and he secretly befriends Dylan. With that series of encounters, both Willa’s and Dana’s carefully constructed worlds collapse: Their fears lead them to make sometimes desperate, sometimes illogical, sometimes monstrous decisions—and ultimately The Mere Wife asks readers: How monstrous are you?

Summer Nights with Amanda Hudson

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email! Today, we welcome a book list from Amanda Hudson on summer vibes and escapist reading.

Now that it’s summer, I’m longing for vacation and daydreaming about setting off on an adventure with friends. Given the state of the world, I can’t exactly turn on my out-of-office response, pack my bags, and leave town on a spectacular summer trip. What I can do is pour myself a cup of tea, snuggle down in my PJs, and crack open one of the dozen books sitting on my bookshelf.

If you, like me, are craving that summer vibe and an escape from the here and now, then I’ve got a book list for you. Not everyone is looking for the same summer experience, so pick the mood you’re craving below.

A Walk Through the Woods

Silver in the Woods

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

This queer Green Man myth retelling is beautifully written and is perfect if you’re looking to walk into the woods, risking unknown dangers for the beauty you find there. And if you fall head-over-heels in love, have no fear, the sequel Drowned Country is due out in August. At just over 100 pages, this novella is the perfect afternoon escape, although I’ll warn you that you might find yourself lingering in the world for days after you finish.

Road Trip!

The Summer of Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is a book about the bond of sisters. I don’t have sisters, so what drew me to this book was the promise of an Odysseus-like journey from Texas to Mexico with five sisters seeking to return the body of a dead man. I feel the need to admit that I was born and raised in central Texas, and so this book is on my list not only because it’s an epic road trip that makes me miss those too-hot Texas summers and the mischief of my past, but also because it takes place across lands I know well.

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Yes, this is a sequel to Carry On. If you liked Harry Potter, or even if you didn’t, but you like the sound of a chosen-one wizard who is bad at being the chosen one, and a snarky vampire roommate who wants to kill him, then jump on this series! That being said, if you wish you could get in your car and go on a classic American road trip, then Wayward Son is for you. Simon, Baz, and Penny are back and trouble keeps finding them as they speed across the American West with the top down (poor Baz) on their convertible.

Carefree Summer Nights

Night of Cake & Puppets

Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor

This novella is part of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series but you don’t have to have read the series to be able to read this book. Here is where I admit that I have not read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Sorry Amy. [Ed. note: Sirens co-chair Amy is also sorry!] I bought this book partly on recommendation of Sirens staff, and partly because the cover and book itself is delightfully bright pink and blue with artwork I loved. Then last fall I was having a rough day and I just wanted to pretend for a little while that I was completely carefree. This novella is the stand-alone story of a magically sweet first date. The book transported me to this feeling that anything was possible, and that taking a tiny risk would have a big reward. It made my heart swell with the potential of requited love. It made me smile into the palm of my hand and made my cheeks hurt with the sweetness of two kind of weird kids finding each other.

Taking to the High Seas

Seafire

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker

Caledonia is captain of an all-female pirate ship and she’s on a revenge mission. This book has friendship, romance, and tons of action. It’s a fast read that left me wanting to round up my best, most awesome friends, and captain a boat out into the open sea.

Dark Shores

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

Dark Shores introduces a new world with meddling gods and magic that blend so beautifully into the mysteries of the oceans. Teriana is blackmailed by rather Romanesque soldiers into helping them cross the “Endless Seas” so that they can conquer the East. In addition to the new world and magic system Jensen creates here, I have this book on the list because it made me feel like I was out on the open water with Teriana, and made me long to be back aboard a boat.

Traveling to Other Worlds

Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

So far most of these books have been young adult or adult, but I’m including this middle grade book on the list because I read it back in 2017 and I still find myself thinking about its vibrant worlds years later. This is a book about a girl who has no color in a world where color is a currency and essentially magic. She goes on a quest with a boy who is not yet her friend to find her father who has disappeared. This book is about finding your value and it’s also about friendship. It’s a journey, and at its core, it reminds me of childhood summers spent with my friends, learning something about them and myself.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January Scaller is a young girl left in the care of a rich white man while her father travels the world finding oddities to bring back to his boss. January finds a book that tells stories of magical doors to other worlds, and the tale of two people from different worlds who meet and fall in love. This portal fantasy took me all over the map. I thought I had it figured out at one point, and then it kept going. If you’re looking to go on a journey of emotions and wishing for a book that keeps you turning the page well after you should be asleep, dig right in to The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Venturing to New Worlds

For some, nowhere on this planet is far enough away for the kind of voyage they’re looking for this summer. If that’s you, then let’s go to new worlds.

Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

A friend of mine recommended this to me at a time when I didn’t think I liked science fiction. By the time I’d finished this book, I realized I was oh so wrong about the genre. The first in a trilogy, Dawn takes you far in the future to a spaceship with an alien race that at first seems completely foreign and new. I put this book on this list because Dawn stretched my imagination in ways that were not always comfortable, but I look back on it in the same way I look back on the part of vacation that at the time was ‘super intense’ but later is one of the best stories you can share. I find myself randomly thinking of this book sometimes just like I’ll randomly think of that time my car broke down on a tiny hardly-ever-used backroad in Costa Rica. Both make me smile. And both were summer adventures I won’t ever forget.

Binti

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ll be honest, I’m recommending the whole trilogy really. They’re novellas, so you might as well get them all. Binti is the first of her people to be offered a spot at the best university in the galaxy. Going away to this university is a big deal for so many reasons, and Binti struggles to hold on to her customs and stay connected with her family while tackling higher education. At its heart, this is a classic story of venturing away from home for the first time and finding out who you are in the process. The trilogy is on this list because it’s a rich tapestry of African culture blended with science fiction that takes the reader on a trip that feels familiar but new.


 

Amanda Hudson

Amanda Hudson drinks far too much black tea and is frequently caught carrying at least one book in her purse. In past lives, she practiced law in Texas and was a lore master for a video game developer in Sweden. When not reading or writing fantasy, Amanda is usually lifting weights, practicing yoga, or trying to con her friends into playing just one more board game with her.

Hearing the Siren Call in Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water

Each month, Sirens co-chair Amy Tenbrink reviews new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors—and occasionally invites other members of the Sirens community to do so. You can find all of these reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We hope you’ll read along and discuss!

This month, Faye Bi reviews Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water!

To my fellow Sirens,

It’s not a surprise to any of you that I claim the act of reading as revolutionary.

We know that reading is more than literacy and comprehension. We know that it’s about stories. Who tells them, who gets paid to tell them, and who can make a living off telling them. Whose books get more promotional budget online and off, whose books get placed front and center at bookstores and libraries, whose books get taught in schools instead of being outside reading, and whose books get revered as “great literature.” This discussion is not new to us. But you might be wondering, what can I do? I can’t singlehandedly force all these institutions and corporations to reckon with their racist, sexist, colonialist pasts.

But there is a lot we can do. So much we can do. While I am furious and dismayed on a daily basis, I control one realm entirely: Me. What I choose to read. What I choose to review. What I choose to recommend. What books I choose to buy and where I choose to buy them. And I know—like I hope you all do—that reading critically is an act of resistance.

And so, I am reviewing Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for you, Sirens community. And I am reviewing it here, for Sirens, where I am not limited by wordcount or editing or pearl-clutching, and I can tell you exactly what I think.

A Song Below Water

A Song Below Water is set in Portland, featuring two Black teenage girls: Tavia, who is a siren, a group of magical people maligned for its association with Black women; and Effie, who plays Euphemia the Mer in the local Ren Faire and has a mysterious skin condition that is somehow linked to her childhood trauma. Effie currently lives with Tavia and her parents, and so the two are sisters, supporting and looking out for each other as they navigate family, school, life, secrets, and literal Black girl magic to save themselves.

To begin, Tavia’s siren identity is an elegant metaphor for being one of the most vulnerable in society. The book opens with a girl murdered by her boyfriend, and because of that girl’s suspected siren identity, her boyfriend will likely be acquitted. Because sirens are only Black women (but not all Black women are sirens), they are perceived as dangerous—and if you recall your lore, a siren’s voice can lure people into doing things against their will. That means sirens have incredible power, but because people fear Black women, sirens’ voices are literally stifled and silenced. There’s that girl on the reality show, for instance, who voluntarily uses a siren collar—designed to silence her voice and her power—to make others “feel safe” around her, and another Black girl, Naema, who wears one as a joke.

But can you imagine using a siren voice as a Black teenaged girl, when, say, the police pull you over?

Effie has her own grief to grapple with. She’s human as far as she knows despite her shedding skin, but she grew up without a father, and her only connection to her mother is that they both played mermaids at the local Ren Faire. Not only must she deal with the large gargoyle keeping watch over her and her grandparents’ continuing to keep family secrets from her, she’s known in the community as “Park Girl”—due to being the sole survivor of a mysterious attack when she was nine where all the other children were turned to stone. Now these “statues” are practically an attraction in a weird Portland tourist campaign, which underscores in a twisted way the variety of methods Black bodies are used for entertainment and how others trivialize her pain.

Morrow’s social critique is devastating, for all the reasons I detail above, but also because she lays out the emotional harm done by “well-meaning” allies, who are white, other races, and other magical identities.

An interesting foil for people of color or other marginalized groups is elokos—dwarf-like creatures who ring charismatic bells to lure human prey and then eat them. In Morrow’s world, elokos are a more socially accepted class of magical being, to the point that they hold political power, especially in Portland, which has attracted a significant eloko population because of that power. Tavia dates Priam, an eloko boy, before the start of the book, and in the best face-palming passage, she recounts the moment they broke up: when Priam bit her neck while kissing, and Tavia launched into an in-depth explanation on why that didn’t bother her despite eloko mythology. But on a more serious note, there are examples of Tavia and Effie at a police brutality protest with other honor students (of course, chaperoned by white parents!) that made me shiver and weep, and I could write an entire essay about Naema, another Black girl and also an eloko, who illustrates the trap of the model minority myth. Naema is especially fascinating as she is one of few outright villains on the page.

But besides pain and critique, there’s joy. Black joy. Tavia and Effie’s sister bond is strong and wonderful to read, and they are each other’s refuge when everyone else around them has failed them. Repeatedly. Not just allies, but also their families, other Black girls, and Black men. There’s a lovely scene at the climax of the book, where the two of them are in a mystical forest setting with lives on the line and literal chaos happening around them, and what do they do? Have a heart-to-heart about their emotional wellbeing.

Morrow brilliantly uses this mythos of sirens, gargoyles, elokos, sprites, mermaids, and magic to examine what it’s like to be a Black girl in America.

And with it, she seamlessly and ambitiously unpacks intersectionality, racism, sexism, police brutality, protesting, affirmative action, gentrification, education, beauty standards, and more. She calls out people who admire and consume Black culture but don’t see the pain of Black creators, and those who call themselves “woke” but are horrified and immobilized when their eyes are opened. I found the density of revelations to be necessarily challenging—and that effort allowed me to appreciate the skill involved in the telling. You know already that this book isn’t newly relevant in the summer of 2020, and that the protests, the pain, the violence, and the disenfranchisement of Black bodies and Black livelihood has been going on for a long, long time.

Tavia and Effie work together to save themselves because they have to. No one will do it for them. If you see parallels to Morrow’s sirens in your real life, I see your pain. I see it and am horrified, but I will do everything in my power so your voice can be heard, because you live these horrors daily. If you, like me, are not a Black girl, A Song Below Water is a call to action. There’s so much to do. Wherever you are on your journey to antiracism, this book is a part of it.

Let’s get to work.


Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

New Fantasy Books: July 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of July 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Lani Goto’s “Space Is the Place” Recommended Reading

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Lani Goto.

Space Is the Place

From a galaxy far, far away to the final frontier, space as a setting allows for just about anything to happen. Stories can range from hard sci-fi to basically fantasy, and cover any of the blurry areas in-between. But one commonality that space stories often share is the invitation to consider big questions about humanity.

These books—some of my favorite space stories I read last year—span the spectrum. Some are more philosophical, some are more action-y, but each one has a unique and thrilling take on what happens when people look to the stars.

 

Six Wakes

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A crew of clones awakes onboard a generation ship to incomplete memories and the dead bodies of their previous selves. With the ship’s computer sabotaged, they are trapped together, uncertain of who was the murderer, but knowing it must be one of them.

The story moves from one character to another as they confront the current crisis and consider their lives before. Lafferty keeps the action at a brisk pace, continually ratcheting up the tension while the crew struggles to solve the mystery before it’s too late. Each clone has a complicated past, and their histories unfold and entangle in increasingly dire ways. There are few easy conclusions when it comes to the ethics of cloning and questions of identity, and they’ll have to decide what they can trust.

Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Haimey Dz works on a space salvage tug with her small crew: pilot, shipmind AI, and two cats. When they take on a new job, they don’t expect much, but suddenly find themselves involved with a mysterious alien ship and a lot of very interested and very aggressive other parties. Haimey winds up facing various enemies and allies alone, and must consider her personal priorities and where she belongs.

One of the most disorienting and enjoyable aspects of this book is how casually Bear makes extraordinary things mundane; for the characters, things like body modifications for zero-G and neural interfaces are entirely normal. This matter-of-factness leads to a frank exploration of a society that spans planets and species, what that means for how personhood is understood, and how people choose to belong—or don’t.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare comes from a distant space station to the heart of the galactic Teixcalaanli empire, where she must uncover what happened to her predecessor and devise a way to save her people from encroaching annexation. She carries a hidden technology that could be the key to her station’s survival, but it also holds a tremendous challenge for her deepest self.

Martine delves into concepts of culture through incredible worldbuilding, creating a vast and intricate realm that feels vibrantly real. Mahit, a lifelong student of Teixcalaan society, pulls us into both the seductions and horrors of assimilation. It’s a piercing examination of colonization, and the way identity is endlessly created and recreated, despite—or sometimes even because of—our best efforts to preserve what we believe is true.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

A small group of nuns tend to their living ship as they journey into the distant reaches of space, ministering to far-flung colonies. But they all have different reasons for choosing this unusual life—and when the Church back on Earth sends a priest to check on them, the nuns must face their personal secrets and make some difficult choices.

This novella packs a lot into relatively few pages: the legacy of war, threats of deadly plague, forbidden romance, and of course the pregnancy of the giant space slug that is the ship. Yet for all the wild elements, Rather crafts a story with tenderness towards the complexities of faith and human connection, allowing for quiet joy and moments of the sublime.

Cosmoknights

Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

Lesbian gladiators fight the patriarchy—literally!—In this neo-medieval space fantasy comic. Young mechanic Pan resents her backwater homeworld, and things get worse when her best friend Tara’s princess status takes her off-world to become a prize in an interstellar arena. Pan is lost…until she encounters two women who play to win a different kind of victory, and she sees a chance to rescue her BFF.

Templer’s colorful art and lively cast make for a vivid, action-packed adventure. As the story sweeps from glittering palaces to ominous back alleys, Pan eagerly jumps into the dangers of her new life, and begins to learn more about herself and the system she lives in. This high-energy, high-drama comic is like a good pop song that makes you want to grab your friends to dance and riot.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Four astronauts embark on a journey of exploration, observing and documenting unknown planets. As they travel further and further from home, encountering wonders and trials, contact with Earth begins to fray and their mission takes on a new kind of significance.

Chambers focuses on the relationships between the characters, each of them different but bound together in purpose and, remarkably, love. It’s an unusual direction for a subgenre that’s often based in the conflict arising from stuffing people in a tin can and flinging them into the dark. But this lens of genuine warmth and kindness makes the story hit harder as Chambers looks to space and asks what responsibility we have to science and to each other.


Lani Goto

Lani Goto grew up on a steady diet of fantasy books, but now it’s more like a mix of some fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and a bit of horror. In addition to reading, they enjoy cooking, hanging out with animals, and yelling at movies. They have a degree in art, and another in comics, though they currently work with engineering teams at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Books and Breakfast: Monstress: Awakening and Nimona

Each year, Sirens showcases the breadth and complexity of our annual theme through our Books and Breakfast program. We select a number of popular, controversial, and just plain brilliant books that address aspects of our theme, and then attendees bring their breakfasts and join a table to discuss one of those books—another chance to deconstruct, interrogate, and celebrate the work that women and nonbinary are doing in fantasy literature!

This year, as we examine gender and villainy, and relatedly, redemption—fraught topics full of artificial constraints and defied stereotypes—our Books and Breakfast program features titles meant to broaden that examination. We’ve chosen eight works, full of questions, but few answers; dastardly villainy, and occasional redemption; and a number of female and nonbinary villains who may, despite or because of their villainy, be someone worth celebrating.

This summer, we’ll be highlighting all eight of these titles, which we hope will allow you to make your choice and tackle your reading before Sirens. Below are our list of selections and our first two summaries; we’ll have the other six in the months to come.

 
2020 BOOKS AND BREAKFAST SELECTIONS

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, illus. by Sana Takeda

Monstress: Awakening

Do you like pretty things and want to cry? If you read fantasy for worldbuilding, there is so much to admire in Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, a lush, fantasy comics series currently on its 30th issue. The first volume of Monstress: Awakening collects the first six issues, and the world is an incredible combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myths, and a matriarchal society—all set in an alternate-world Asia.

With its own creation myth, religion, and history, Monstress centers around the conflict between Arcanics—a mixed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients—and the Cumaea, a “scientific” order of witches (humans) who consume and experiment on them to fuel their magic. The wars have been gruesome and violent, with their legacy carrying trauma and deep emotional scars in our protagonist, half-Arcanic and former child slave Maika Halfwolf. Maika, who can pass for human, has very big fish to fry—hell-bent on avenging her dead mother, she is the occasional host of a terrifying and supremely powerful monster, who emerges from the stump of her severed arm.

It’s hard to put into words just how breathtakingly epic Monstress is, how dark, and how beautiful. Though interspersed with moments of levity and wisdom from adorable cats, and rife with whimsical details (unicorn horses!), the themes here are heady: Liu drew on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences during World War II to show just how broken life is for the Arcanics. Like with Maika, sometimes the monster inside all of us just wants to burn it all down—and that destructive power is readily available to her. Takeda’s artwork deserves all the superlatives and can’t be understated, with fine detailed architecture and manga-style characters. Comes with major content warnings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona

For tonally lighter fare, Noelle Stevenson’s web comic-turned-graphic novel Nimona will bring about giggles and snickers, as a teenage girl strongarms her way into being the sidekick to the “villainous” Lord Ballister Blackheart. Here be dragons! Knights who communicate via videocall! The properties of magic getting debated by goggle-wearing scientists! Ballister fits reluctantly into the role of villain ever since his arm got blown off by his archnemesis, the lushly locked Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Who better to give him a push than orphaned, impulsive, sarcastic Nimona, a shapeshifter who can take the form of any living being of any size or strength?

Though the novel starts with quippy dialogue and witty punchlines as Ballister and Nimona form a rapport, there is a darker, more serious undertone amongst all the charm: Nimona is, well, an extremely efficient killer. Since Ballister is truly a cinnamon roll who eventually just wants to be loved, he’s at odds with himself when he realizes Nimona’s full and true power—and the chaos she brings. And since this fun blur between science and magic of a world doesn’t exclude patriarchy, teenaged girls must be controlled, right? They’re dangerous when they’re unpredictable.

Still, feel assured under Stevenson’s confident pen. Her artwork drives the heartfelt character design, and the amazing expressions on their faces are a joy—especially the eyebrows! And overall, Nimona is a tender, funny exploration of what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, with a sweet romance, enough silliness to give you a bellyache, and a moody girl to root for, even on her bad days. Because who doesn’t have those days?

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea Is a Work for Our Time

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Sooner Or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time.

I purchased Sarah Pinsker’s Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea in April 2019. This will surprise none of you who are familiar with my particular reading predilections: Sooner or Later is a collection of speculative short stories, critically acclaimed, compared to the work of Kelly Link, repeatedly described as “weird.” If I were to read only three things the rest of my life they would be: fantasy/literary crossovers, young-adult high fantasy, and speculative short story collections described as “weird.”

However.

My to-be-read pile being what it is, and the Sirens bookstore stocking process being what it is, I put Sooner or Later on a shelf and there it sat for over a year. This is not an unusual occurrence, regardless that it is a sometimes regrettable occurrence.

I unearthed—not an egregious exaggeration—Sooner or Later in March 2020, as we were compiling Sirens’s ginormous list of spectacular speculative queer works. Pinsker is queer and Sooner or Later was, by reputation, full of queer representation. Surprising precisely no one, I claimed Sooner or Later as one of the spectacular speculative queer works that I’d read and recommend. (Surely you are not surprised that at Sirens we quite happily presume spectacularness in works by women and nonbinary authors?)

Let’s pause there.

I certainly do not need to tell you that, in the interim, a few cases of COVID-19 have ballooned into a worldwide pandemic or that yet another Black man murdered by the police has sparked worldwide protests. The world feels more dangerous, perhaps, than it did a few months ago, and more fragile. A world where you must choose between maintaining your quarantine and begging for justice. Like many of you, I am not immune from anxiety, despair, rage, or surprise sobbing. There is a certain isolation, a certain desolation, that comes with this dangerous, fragile new world.

And into this desolation comes Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea.

Pinsker’s masterwork—and it is a masterwork—thrives on desolation, nurtures it, consumes it.

She has, with great care, woven the inescapable misery of isolation into thread that binds both her craft and your reading experience. Her stories are lonely, yearning, destructive, elegiac. Her collection is loss made tangible, in ink and paper.

Sooner or Later opens with “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.” A man has just lost an arm in a farming accident and, before he wakes, his parents authorize the hospital to attach a cutting-edge prosthetic: a metal claw of an appendage with a corresponding chip in the brain. The man wakes and soon discovers that his new arm believes itself to be 97 kilometers of road in eastern Colorado, a fiercely bleak stretch of the United States that looks at distant mountains. The man can see this stretch of highway through the wonder of his arm—and it intersects with his own feelings of love and loss. When his chip malfunctions and the hospital replaces it, his arm no longer yearns for eastern Colorado—and the man feels the surprising ache of that loss as well.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is Pinsker at her best: impossible worlds that nevertheless clearly and incisively reflect our own humanity. I have driven 97 kilometers of barren two-lane highway in eastern Colorado. It is a road that looks like a road trip: sky-high speeds, desert winds, a visible goal in the distant mountains. I, too, feel the ache of that man’s arm, even while my brain marvels at the craft necessary to build this desolation into a computer chip, a metal arm, a man comprised of parts.

Pinsker’s stories unwind from there: a post-apocalyptic survivalist waiting, waiting, waiting for her wife to find her; an elderly woman suddenly recalling the single moment that changed her husband from a dreamer to someone lost; a touring band in a vast Midwest where people fear congregating with strangers. Each captures incarnations of that same two-lane highway desolation: a wistfulness, a single-minded determination even in the face of disaster, a sudden wondering of what might have been. If only…

Pinsker’s collection isn’t easy, especially in a moment when we’re all feeling desolate, emotional, raw. You might want to save this for a sunnier day, a happier time, when your heart isn’t quite so breakable. But if you’re ready to, as I tell my niece we eventually must, feel your feelings, Pinsker’s collection is a work for our time.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans Sirens and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

New Fantasy Books: June 2020

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of June 2020 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!
 

Rine Karr’s Recommended Reading on a Theme of Dragons

The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who write reviews and books lists of fantasy and related works by women or nonbinary authors. If you’re interested in sending us a book list or review for publication, please email us! Today, we welcome a book list by Rine Karr.

If I had to choose one mythological creature to read about solely until the end of my days, I would choose dragons. Magnificent dragons—they appear in the folklore of many of the world’s cultures, both as fire-breathing monsters and revered serpentine beasts. I think that’s why dragons are so fascinating to so many people. Where did the idea of the dragon first come from? And why did it appear in the first place? Dragons have stirred the imagination of countless generations, and if you’re like me and you want to read more stories about them, here’s a list of some of my favorite dragon novels and novellas.

 

Dragon's Milk
1. Dragon’s Milk (Dragon Chronicles #1) by Susan Fletcher
An oldie but goodie, Dragon’s Milk may be the first book I ever read that contained dragons and was written by a woman. The main character, Kaeldra—who I’d like to dub the Mother of Dragons long before this title and its respective Queen even existed—must find a dragon mother and bring back some of the dragon’s milk in order to save her sister, Lyf. But when the dragon mother is killed, Kaeldra suddenly finds herself acting as the adopted mother to three wee draclings.
Dealing with Dragons
2. Dealing with Dragons (Enchanged Forest Chronicles #1) by Patricia C. Wrede
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are some of my sister’s favorite books, not mine; however, I decided to include this book on this list because it is truly iconic. Princess Cimorene may be a bit of a “not like other girls” trope, but her headstrong nature, tomboyishness, and the fact that she’s not a princess who needs saving makes her story an excellent choice for young girls (and boys and everyone really), particularly if said girls like fairy tales, and, of course, a talking dragon named Kazul.
Tehanu
3. Tehanu (Earthsea Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin
No list of books about dragons is complete without including the Earthsea Cycle. Some might’ve cited the series’ namesake—A Wizard of Earthsea—on this list, but it’s not my favorite of the six. Tehanu, which shifts the focus of the story of Earthsea from that of its self-styled heroic male wizards to its just as powerful but often overlooked magical women, is my favorite of the cycle. Tenar stole my heart when she was a naive little girl in The Tombs of Atuan. In Tehanu, however, Tenar is a confident adult woman who readers can’t help but respect and adore.
Seraphina
4. Seraphina (Seraphina #1) by Rachel Hartman
In Seraphina’s world, dragons transform into humans in order to keep the peace between the two species. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Goredd is far from idyllic, and the two sides in this tale don’t get along. Seraphina can walk this divide for reasons I can’t reveal, and she must do so in order to solve a murder alongside the shrewd Prince Lucian Kigg, a character who reminded me of Char from Ella Enchanted.
The Last Namsara
5. The Last Namsara (Iskari #1) by by Kristen Ciccarelli
This is a story of a girl not allowed to tell stories. This is a story of a girl who broke the rules. This is a story of a girl learning to be true to herself. The story of Asha—dragon slayer and Iskari—mirrors the author’s own story. Of how when Ciccarelli grew up, she was led to believe that storytelling was no longer an activity for adults. Until she realized that this was simply not true and wrote The Last Namsara, a book that I love with all my heart.
In the Vanishers' Palace
6. In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
Beauty and the Beast meets—at least in my mind—Spirited Away. That’s how I would describe this novella. Which is a gem! With an all-Vietnamese cast of characters, a sapphic relationship, a magical palace, a post-apocalyptic and post-colonial setting, and a dragon (of course), there’s a lot to unearth in this shorter tale. There’s even a library that I pictured à la Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast, but it’s even better in this book, although I won’t reveal why here.
The Priory of the Orange Tree
7. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
As the longest book on this list at a hefty 827 pages, I beg you: do not let the size of The Priory intimidate you. If you like high fantasy in the same vein as A Game of Thrones, but you’re looking for something more feminist, more LGBTQ+, and more diverse, then you’ll love The Priory. Written from four points of view and set in a sort of East–West dichotomy world, The Priory tells the story of Ead, Tané, Loth, and Niclays, and how each of these characters and the people around them respond to an ancient enemy threatening to destroy them all. Oh, and there are dragon riders!
Shatter the Sky
8. Shatter the Sky (Shatter the Sky #1) by Rebecca Kim Wells
Maren’s girlfriend, Kaia, is abducted by the Aurati. Maren loves Kaia, so to save her, Maren decides to leave her home, steal one of the emperor’s prized dragons, and storm the impenetrable Aurati stronghold. Enough said! I’m sold! This is a fun read for anyone looking for stories with dragons and bisexual representation.

Rine KarrRine Karr is a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copy editor by daylight, with a background in anthropology/archaeology, international human rights, and Buddhist studies/art history. When Rine is not writing or otherwise working, she can be most often found reading books and drinking tea. She also loves to travel, and her heart is located somewhere between Hong Kong and London, although Rine currently lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her partner. She’s also currently—and almost always—in the midst of writing a novel.

 

Sarah Gailey’s Book List with Four Words on Each

Sirens Guest of Honor Sarah Gailey shares a recommended reading list, with four descriptors for each. If you enjoy Sarah’s work, or you want a recommended reading list of exceptional works, this list is for you. Take it away, Sarah!

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

beautiful
hopeful
honest
tender

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang

intense
harrowing
scathing
brutal

The Need

The Need
by Helen Phillips

gripping
dark
furious
surprising

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black
by Lina Rather

unflinching
kind
confrontational
sweet

The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang

lovely
aching
immersive
perfect

An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

cutthroat
direct
relentless
brilliant

The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing
by Brooke Bolander

furious
dazzling
ambitious
satisfying


Sarah Gailey

Hugo Award winner and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo award for Best Fan Writer. Their most recent fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic for Liars, was published in 2019; their latest novella, Upright Women Wanted, was published in February 2020. Their young adult novel debut, When We Were Magic, came out in March 2020.

For more information about Sarah, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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